Muslim pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, in the center of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca on August 14, 2019, as a part of the annual Islamic Hajj pilgrimage. Photo: Ashraf Amra / Anadolu Agency

Covid-19 has now been officially labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Originating in China and possibly contracted from a bat (as a food source, though that is not confirmed), the coronavirus that causes this disease is now impacting almost all nations around the world, causing states of emergency and shutting down businesses, schools, and even government agencies.

Covid-19 presents with flu- and pneumonia-like symptoms and is especially dangerous to individuals with pre-existing illnesses, especially the elderly and those suffering from respiratory health issues. 

While its mortality rate is currently about 3.89% globally, what makes this virus so difficult to contain and deal with is the morbidity rate, or the rapidity with which it spreads. This is particularly problematic for containment efforts. 

While the flu and most other viruses are not contagious until symptoms begin showing, Covid-19 can be contagious up to five days before symptoms show, so people are often unaware they are carrying and transmitting this virus in public.

Thus the importance of proactivity and decreasing the chances of spreading the coronavirus through social interaction. 

While the initial response to this devastating virus was slow, some countries such as Saudi Arabia took what seemed like overbearing and overprotective action. Now, as cases increase exponentially, it is becoming increasingly clear that this sort of action was exactly what was needed.

Saudi Arabia took the strong position of banning overseas visitors from taking part in a pilgrimage to holy sites in Mecca and Medina starting at the end of February before most other nations took any action to stem the contagion. In recent days the kingdom has taken the step of banning all international flights to and from its territory.  

Roundly rejected by many Muslim groups initially, Riyadh’s effort has been crucial in helping slow the coronavirus’ spread throughout the nation and the Muslim world, and has encouraged other countries and religious groups to be more proactive to help slow the contagion.

During the past week, increasing numbers of nations have stepped up their efforts to temper the effects of the coronavirus and while some are clutching at straws after having acted too late, early movers are showing the most signs of control. 

An estimated 160,000 people and counting have been officially diagnosed with Covid-19 in more than 120 countries. The number of deaths has climbed into the thousands. Iran announced a spike in deaths related to the coronavirus, jumping in a short 24-hour period. In Spain, cases also soared with scores of deaths reported, and Italy is now the largest outbreak zone outside of China. 

In the United States, several states have ordered all schools to shut down for at least two weeks (so far), most major sporting events have either been canceled or postponed, and further measures are being implemented, including some regions banning events or gatherings where 250 or more people could be in attendance.

However, these countries face an uphill battle over the next few weeks, having only properly implemented strict countermeasures last week as the gravity of the contagion sank in. Cases since then have increased to a point where strict social distancing and quarantine measures will not be as effective, and hospitals may be overloaded with sick patients. 

Even though Saudi Arabia was heavily criticized for its pilgrim-visa cancellations, it has become clear in just the past week how important its stance was. By appreciating the exponential increase in infection cases within a two-week golden window, the kingdom and other early movers have managed to cap infection rates and remain in control of the virus.

Saudi Arabia’s its decision may certainly have seemed draconian and unwarranted at the time, but looking now at the seemingly uncontrollable outbreak across Asia, Europe and North America, it was clearly warranted. 

Saudi Arabia’s swift and decisive actions may very well have tempered the spread of the virus throughout the Middle East and the world by preventing mass travel and incubation. 

On top of that, Saudi Arabia took these dramatic steps – having analyzed and understood the devastating impact the coronavirus was having on other countries – before the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic. 

It is unclear precisely how many lives will be spared by Riyadh’s once unpopular preventive measure, but it may very well be many.

Now, as the world struggles to find its bearings and navigate the coronavirus’ spread, another question is arising within the Muslim world: What will become of the hajj?

It is a requirement that all adult Muslims make the hajj pilgrimage at least once in their life. It can only be performed during the early days of Dhul-Hijjah. This year, that will be in July.

While Muslims initially gasped at images of the deserted Great Mosque and Kaaba in Mecca, the closure of Islam’s holiest site has occurred before. The hajj has been canceled numerous times throughout history, the first back in the 10th century. During the 19th century, plague and infections killed scores of hajj pilgrims, so Saudi Arabia’s decision to restrict travel to slow the spread of Covid-19 comes with precedent. 

A few nations’ bold steps weeks ago, while unpopular at the time, are now proving crucial to fight the virus. If any lesson is to be learned here, it is that decisive action must be taken early.

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Jennifer Lyn

Jennifer Lyn is an international-relations specialist with more than 16 years of experience in the sector. She is currently consulting private US companies in regard to Southeast Asia and Middle East trade policies.